Found, another missing link: Primitive feathers

January 13, 2009

Creationists must be brave indeed — or foolish, or non-comprehending — to steam on in the face of almost daily science discoveries.

Some discoveries are bigger than others.  Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science has a good, lay explanation of a recent paper documenting the discovery of a fossil with ancient, simple feathers –– a step in the evolution of feathers that was predicted but had not before been confirmed by fossils.

Until now, their existence was merely hypothetical – this is the first time that any have actually been found in a fossil. Other, more advanced stages in feather evolution have been described, so Beipaiosaurus provides the final piece in a series of structures that takes us from simple filaments to the more advanced feathers of other dinosaurs to the complex quills that keep modern birds aloft.

Beipaiosaurusfossil.jpg

The simple feathers were discovered by Xu Xing, the famous Chinese palaeontologist who discovered such species as Microraptor and Dilong, among many others. The filaments are longer and broader than those possessed by other dinosaurs and Xu calls them “elongated, broad, filamentous feathers” or EBFFs.

Each is about 10-15cm long and 2mm wide – not exactly thick, but still 10-20 times broader than the simple feathers of Sinosauropteryx. They are also unusually stiff, for despite the rigours of death and fossilisation, very few of them are curved or bent.

In other species of extinct dinosaur, simple feathers probably helped to insulate their bodies. But Beipaiosaurus’s feathers were too patchily distributed to have provided much in the way of insulation and they certainly weren’t complex enough for flight.

Instead, Xu thinks that the animal used them for display – their length and stiffness are well-suited for such a purpose, and they’re only found on parts of the body that bear display feathers in modern birds. They provide strong evidence that feathers were used for display long before they were co-opted for flight.

So, what’s that?  243,694 “missing links,” now found?  243,694 for science, 0 for creationism.  Isn’t there a five-inning rule in science?

It will be interesting to watch the next round of hearings at the Texas State Board of Education, to see what sort of excuse creationists will invent for why this chunk of science isn’t exactly what it seems to be.


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